For Iraqi women, financial circumstances, religious and tribal rules, and social mores can be obstacles to fulfilling their dreams. At last week's TEDxBaghdad, a group of exceptional Iraqi women shared stories of how they overcame their hurdles.
The TED conferences began in 1984 as a way to bring people of different backgrounds together to share ideas. Since then it has spawned TEDGlobal, which focuses on international issues, and the TEDx community conferences in cities around the world. Last week, people from all over Iraq arrived in Baghdad for TEDxBaghdad, which for the first time focused on women.
Yahay AlAbdeli, chairman of TEDxBaghdad, opened the event by talking to the audience about the importance of TED and the significance of women’s efforts in Iraq.
“I won’t talk too long, though,” he said. “I want to leave the time and words for the women who put this all together.”
The speakers came from diverse backgrounds, but spoke of a similar theme: the importance for women to know what they can achieve – regardless of what stands in the way, which for Iraqi women is not only financial circumstances, but religious and tribal rules, and social mores. In a country where women are still often marginalized, this was a conference of women who had reached their goals anyway, and were determined to help others do the same.
Dr. Luqa’a Finjan, a university professor and a researcher of women studies, launched the day by speaking about the role of women in Iraq’s long history, including their roles during war and conflict, particularly the revolts against the British in 1920 and 1941, during which they supported the men and defended their land.
“But, the partnership between Iraq’s men and women is now inactive and unequal,” she said. “Women are becoming leaders in Iraq. All Iraq’s women need to be able to more easily pursue their education.”
One of the speakers was Zaman Al-Saadi, a schoolteacher with a degree in Arabic literature who became blind due to illness soon after her birth and is now trying to open a school for the blind. She talked about the difficulties adjusting to the world around her as a blind child, experiences she now wants to use to help others in similar situations.
Her studies were difficult because of the lack of tools to help blind students, but she worked hard and earned her degree. Then she faced the next hurdle: finding a job.
“I didn’t want my degree to be a piece of paper on my wall at home,” she said, and after three years of job searching, she found a job as a teacher.
Many people have asked her how she has managed to achieve so much. Being blind was the motivation to work so hard, she said, and now her struggle motivates her students to work hard, too.
“I’m glad to be an excellent example to my students,” she said. “To be smart and achieve more than I have. I’m blind, but I saw the future. I want to build this school to help other blind children see theirs.”
Noor Jawad completed her higher education, but after finding herself in an area unrelated to her degree she married and started a family. She enjoyed her life until the death of her mother, after which she lived two years in depression. Then her aunt encouraged her to do something for herself.
“My aunt asked me: what are you able to do? What are you creative with? And I said, I am creative with women’s accessories,” she told the audience.
From that point, Noor Jawad started watching videos about making accessories, particularly gold jewelry. She said she always incorporates Iraqi culture into her designs, and displayed two of her pieces: a necklace she designed with inspiration from the waterfalls in Kurdistan, and a shawl designed to look like a garden with water pools.
She said she now uses the social media, in which she wanted to build a career, to display the career she has built.
Azhar Omran Al-Tiraihy holds a Master’s degree in microbiology and is an advocate of women’s development. She spoke about the common problems among Iraqi women, particularly for those who are widowed or divorced, and are trying to support big families on their own.
She decided to start a support group that would meet in a cafe in her hometown of Najaf. Starting with just three participants, she found the biggest challenges to keeping the group going were the religious, tribal and social groups who told them this was a waste of time that took them away from the responsibilities of their families. But they were able to continue, and the number of women coming to the group grew. And so did the number of professionals in it, who could really help the other struggling women.
“We discussed our common problems, and advised each other,” she said. “And some of the women in the group were doctors and lawyers.”
She added that the main problem is that “many women in Iraq don’t know their rights.”
She has turned her cafe group into a center for advice and counseling, and as the numbers have grown, so has the diversity of the women, ranging from the very religious to the very well educated.
But for some, higher education seems like an unreachable dream. Suzan Hameed Majeed told the audience how she always enjoyed school, but when she married at 16 she had to leave it. She still had the passion to finish school, but at age 17, became the mother of triplets.
Suzan dedicated herself to raising and teaching them, but one day one of her daughters said something that made her want to return to school.
“She said that at school, sometimes they are asked, what is your mother’s degree? And they have no answer. This made me feel deep sorrow and made me more eager to finish my education.”
With her husband’s help and support, and an Iraqi program that allows students to study at home and just take the final exams, she was able to work toward her high school diploma.
But the challenges of studying for exams while raising three small children were compounded by one more: her fourth child was on the way. And while she was taking her final exams, she went into labor. But despite the pain, she finished the exams, and later also finished college.
Suzan, who began working for a women’s rights organization after graduating, said she wants to be an example to Iraqi women who believe that because they have children they can’t have their degree.